A Squandered Presidency?

By Richard S. Dunham


The Misunderstood Presidency of Bill Clinton

By Joe Klein

Doubleday 230pp -- $22.95

While the U.S. has emerged as the world's sole economic and military superpower, the nation at home has lived through an era of failed Presidencies. Since the assassination of John F. Kennedy, only Ronald Reagan has left office with his reputation largely intact. Johnson decided not to seek reelection--amid civil strife and a bloody quagmire in Vietnam. Nixon resigned in disgrace. Ford, Carter, and Bush Sr. were voted out of office. The most recent retiree, Bill Clinton, became the first President in 130 years to be impeached.

When it comes to Clinton, the first draft of history--as written by America's political pundits and chattering class--has been harsh. Analysts widely describe the 42nd President as reckless and self-destructive. Admirers write of wasted opportunities and squandered talent. Those who despise him speak of moral bankruptcy and mushy multilateralism.

These snap judgments offer a useful contemporary assessment of the Clinton Presidency. But they lend neither the perspective nor the intellectual detachment needed to write great works of history.

Despite the challenges facing the instant historian, political journalist Joe Klein gives it his best shot. Barely a year after the man from Hope headed for Harlem, Klein has cobbled together the first revisionist work on the Clinton Presidency. The Natural: The Misunderstood Presidency of Bill Clinton is an attempt by a sometime admirer to delve beneath the squalid headlines and tabloid fodder and discuss the Administration's policy successes and failures. His effort is a qualified success: It will make you reconsider Clinton's eight years, even if you don't altogether agree with the assessment.

The book's title is an allusion to Bernard Malamud's 1952 novel about a supremely skilled baseball player whose career is nearly cut short by a devilish woman. But Klein, in searching for the key to Clinton's character, also evokes the philosopher George Santayana's description of William James: "He was so extremely natural that there was no knowing what his nature was, or what came next." Klein sees Clinton as a similarly talented, inscrutable figure.

The Natural is more of an extended essay than a definitive history. Klein--a New Yorker writer known to many as Anonymous, the best-selling author of Primary Colors--no doubt intended to provoke a broad (and rapid) reassessment of the Clinton years, focusing more on policy than personal peccadilloes. But, rather than redeem the ex-President, Klein's analysis (and occasional psychoanalysis) of the dark side of all things Clintonian will probably end up serving to reinforce negative evaluations.

Damaging material is liberally sprinkled throughout the book. How's this? In reviewing the ex-President's instant imprint on history, Klein mentions that Bartlett's Familiar Quotations includes three Clintonisms in its latest edition. They are: "I...didn't inhale"; "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky"; and "it depends on what the meaning of the word `is' is." So much for policy triumphs.

Klein, a veteran observer of the American political scene, is obviously sympathetic to the optimistic tone of Clinton's New Democrat campaign rhetoric and occasional "third-way" style of governing, a path meant to be independent of the ideological orthodoxies and extremes of the two parties. His basic thesis is that Clinton had great successes (often overlooked) to go with his stupendous failures, such as the disastrous health-care overhaul of 1994, not to mention his private life.

Klein praises Clinton for his efforts to steer the American economy into the Information Age and for restoring fiscal discipline to the federal budget. But the book could have used a detailed section on the economic boom and how much credit Clinton deserves for it. Klein lauds the thrust of Clintonian foreign policy, from trade liberalization to international collaboration. He argues that Clinton reshaped the Democratic Party from its Reagan-era pessimism and interest-group domination, while defeating the Gingrich revolution.

It's an interesting and thought-provoking thesis, if highly suspect. For one thing, almost every major Clinton "achievement" has come undone in just a year. The budget surplus has vanished. George W. Bush has abandoned Clinton's consensus-building foreign policy for an I'll-lead-you-follow approach to allies. The Democratic Party has returned to ideological squabbling, with congressional liberals dominating the debate and New Democrats on the defensive. And while Gingrich himself has faded from the scene in an orgy of extremism and personal hypocrisy, the Republican control of Capitol Hill outlasted Clinton and ended in the Senate only after Bush tacked right in his first five months in office.

Then, there's the postscript to the Clinton Presidency: the war on terrorism. In the aftermath of September 11, the Clintonites' earlier failure to come to grips with international terrorism looms as a major shortcoming of the peace-and-prosperity era over which he presided. It will take more historical perspective than we have today--and a resolution of Bush's open-ended war on terrorism--to assess fairly the responsibility for America's lack of preparation. Klein, though, offers some fascinating insights from inside the Clinton White House.

Among those bearing degrees of responsibility, he asserts, are former Treasury Secretaries Robert E. Rubin and Lawrence H. Summers. Klein claims they opposed "the use of cyber-warfare against the financial assets of terrorists" on the grounds that "it might threaten the stability of the international financial system." Then there was the FBI, led by Clinton critic Louis J. Freeh, which told the White House that the danger posed by bin Laden was exaggerated. "Their standard line was that Osama bin Laden wasn't a serious domestic security threat," Klein quotes an anonymous Clinton official as declaring. The stoutest anti-terrorism warrior, according to Klein, was National Security Adviser Samuel "Sandy" Berger, who fought many a losing battle to keep the endeavor on the radar screen at the White House.

The events of August, 1998, raise questions about the motives behind the Clinton Administration's limited anti-terrorist actions. Bin Laden's minions bombed the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania just days before Clinton's infamous grand jury appearance. His retaliatory attacks on Afghanistan and Sudan came just three days after he lashed out at independent counsel Kenneth Starr on nationwide TV. "There were suspicions," Klein writes, "even among the President's foreign-policy team, that the scandal had influenced Clinton's decision to go after bin Laden." It is a sad commentary on the Clinton years that official Washington, from the White House to the Clinton-haters on Capitol Hill to the Inspector Clouseaus of the press corps, was obsessed with a former intern and blind to the threat posed by bin Laden.

You might not agree with Klein's point of view, but you have to give him credit. He makes us think. And to judge Bill Clinton fairly, Americans will have to get past their gut reactions and ponder the complexities of a supremely talented politician and deeply flawed human being.

Dunham covers the White House.

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